Venba is a narrative cooking game, where you play as an Indian immigrant who moved to Canada with her husband and son in the 1980s. The game sees you cook a variety of dishes, such as idlis, puttu, kari dosas and biryani, as well as restore lost recipes.
ON July 31, the long-awaited Venba from Toronto-based Visai Studio arrived with bags of promise on PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch and PC. Judging by the social media buzz, most of the anticipation swirled around the prospect of a cooking game that focused on Tamil food. It’s highly unlikely that any of those social media posts (or indeed, the posters behind them) could’ve anticipated the transformative role Venba plays in terms of how food is represented in video games.
In an earlier article, I had made an attempt at defining the role played by food in a variety of games. The conclusion I’d drawn was that with a few exceptions, food was largely used as a consumable and transactable commodity. Most commonly used to boost health, provide buffs and earn money through trade, it has been used on occasion as a narrative device. But I’ve yet to see it deployed as the main course, if you will, in the manner Venba does.
But first, what is Venba?
An enchanting little toy-like game, Venba is described by its creators as “a narrative cooking game, where you play as an Indian immigrant, who immigrated to Canada with her husband and son in the 1980s”. The game sees you cook a variety of dishes and restore lost recipes, the description continues, along with being able to experience a story of family, love, loss and more.
Over the course of approximately 90 minutes, you are whisked away on a whistlestop tour of protagonist Venba’s life post-immigration. Her efforts to piece together lost recipes through trial-and-error are a wonderful metaphor for trying to keep her culture, identity and family intact. Venba’s story is minimal, but powerful. Its music, composed by Alpha Something, is mesmerising. Its art style is simple yet charming, and lends itself to some dishes that are extremely easy on the eye. Because as stated above, it is food that is at the heart of this game.
And one of the crucial elements in creating the experience of food beyond just the look of idlis, puttu, kari dosas and biryanis is the soundscape of a kitchen. Enter sound designer Neha Patel.
“In late 2020, I accidentally stumbled upon the Venba Twitter handle and the story immediately attracted me,” recalls Neha about how she came to be associated with the project, “I couldn't believe that someone was making a game about an Indian mother immigrating to Canada in the ‘80s! It felt surreal.”
Following a bunch of Twitter interactions, comments and exchanges, it was July 2021 that brought with it a job offer. “I got a DM from the Venba team asking if I was interested in doing sound design for them. I could not believe it! I was too shy to message them directly even though I wanted to. Turns out they wanted to contact me earlier, but were also too shy,” she adds.
Right off the bat, the guiding principle for Neha, whose CV includes a whole host of sound design and music composition projects, was simple: “Recreating my childhood.” She elaborates, “The frying sound of mustard seeds doesn't sound the same as bacon. They're both 'sharp frying' sounds but something about the seeds popping is unique. The key was in the details and knowing the kitchen of a South Asian household.”
Anyone who’s been in a South Asian kitchen will be familiar with the sounds of tawas scratching shrilly across the stove, angry pressure cookers hissing, coconuts being scraped and so on. For Venba, Neha sought to capture that culinary symphony as accurately as possible. “I knew at once that I wanted to recreate the sounds of my household,” she says, “I wanted the sounds of bangles, the stainless steel utensils, that scary pressure cooker!”
It can be argued that in order to appreciate the uniqueness of all these sounds, one has to get away from them. And possibly, like Venba herself, go to Canada. “Now, in my 20s and having visited many non-South Asian households, I realise how different kitchens sound,” says Neha, “It's not just the smell, but the clanking of the dishes, the music, the scraping sounds — all of it is different. I wanted to recreate my childhood home, and I think I got pretty close!”
Using headphones or earphones is the best way to really immerse yourself in Venba, and it’s not unusual to begin wondering how this collection of sounds was recorded. A studio with a foley artist at one’s disposal, one would imagine. “I wish I had a studio!,” says the Québec-based sound designer, “I work from home; I recorded sounds from my bedroom and kitchen.”
Describing the process of waiting for cars to pass by or random apartment noises as quite the hassle, she notes, “When I started on the project, I had been working in the industry for barely two years — all of it as a freelancer and most of it during the peak of the pandemic. This meant that I made do with what I had, and that was a low budget and everyday tools. I cooked a lot and used my trusty Zoom H4N to record it. I would use books and binders to adjust the height of the microphone and try my best to have a stable hand.”
The move, whether intentional or not, pays off because the in-game kitchen sounds natural and authentic. This helps what is happening onscreen to resonate with the player on a far deeper level than just watching ingredients go into a pot and a dish emerge from it.
“Our focus was on Tamil culture and food, and those sounds are specific and unique,” Neha says, “The support I got from [game designer, programmer and writer] Abhi was tremendous. He valued the sound design and provided a lot of feedback. We paid attention to the details, simply because we cared.”